Published August 28, 2013
When the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway later this year, a new name will be etched on the trophy.
The only question is whose name it will be.
With 10 races left in the season, it appears the fight for the championship is between three of the series' top drivers - Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon and Elliott Sadler.
This weekend, the series moves to the high banks of Atlanta Motor Speedway, where none of the title contenders have been to victory lane. In fact, Hornish is the only one of the group who has led a single lap at AMS.
Heading into this weekend, Hornish holds a six-point lead over Dillon, with Sadler 11 points back.
While it appears the title may be a three-man battle, Regan Smith is desperately trying to hang on and remain a factor.
Thanks to wins at Talladega and Michigan, Smith took over the points lead and was setting the pace as the series hit the summer stretch.
But since the month of June, Smith has struggled with an average finish of 13.7, dropped to fourth in the standings, and is now 24 points behind Hornish.
So how did it all go wrong for Smith and the No. 7 JR Motorsports team?
A mix of mechanical issues, poor road-course performances and perhaps a bit of head games is to blame.
Just as things were looking up after the win at Michigan, Smith endured devastating finishes in the next two events. Multiple incidents at Road America led to a 32nd-place finish, while a right-front suspension issue resulted in a 30th at Kentucky.
Following the rain-shortened event in the Bluegrass State, Smith summed it up by saying, "things break occasionally," but was eager to gain the points back.
However, that has not happened.
In fact, Smith has given up the 58-point advantage he enjoyed following his win at MIS.
Perhaps the biggest distraction, though, has come from Elliott Sadler.
While racing at the front of the pack on the final green-white-checkered restart at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, Smith made contact and turned Sadler, ending what would have been a promising points run for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
After the race, Sadler caught up with Smith in the garage and promised, "You will not win this championship. Mark my words."
That threat appears to have made an impact.
Since the incident, Smith has fallen from first to fourth in the standings with only one top-10 finish - a fourth at Watkins Glen.
Now 24 points behind Hornish, Smith is not entirely out of the championship picture, but things are starting to slip away.
After another disappointing run at Bristol - this time a result of a broken wheel - Smith vowed his team was not giving up just yet.
"With 10 races left, we're going to have to be near perfect to have a shot," Smith said. "I will promise two things: There's zero quit in this team, and this championship is far from over."
Each of the top three title contenders scored his best-career Atlanta finish last season, while Smith has not run a Nationwide Series car there since 2007.
If he wants to add his name to the list of contenders for the title, he's right: The No. 7 team needs to be perfect week-in and week-out, and that all starts Saturday night under the lights at Atlanta.